America’s culture war is not about culture. It is about religion—Christianity, in particular—and its role in the public life of the nation. On one side, secularists of various stripes insist that religion is the source of our greatest problems—prejudice and bigotry, ignorance and injustice—and thus ought to be relegated entirely to the private sphere of life, if not eliminated altogether. On the other side of the cultural divide, assorted religious intellectuals maintain that Christianity provides an essential moral foundation for liberal democratic government. Many go even further, to identify an essential connection between Christianity and democracy.
It is the great virtue of Robert P. Kraynak’s Christian Faith and Modern Democracy to question the assumptions of both sides in the culture war. Not that he feigns neutrality in these important matters. As a self-described believing and practicing Roman Catholic, Kraynak, who teaches political philosophy at Colgate University, strongly supports those who advocate a greater role for the church in American public life. In his early chapters, he powerfully defends the view that liberalism is incapable of vindicating the human dignity on which liberal rights are based. This is the case because it is impossible to defend dignity with doubt about the highest ends of life, as liberalism has sought to do from the time of its origins in early modern Europe. Hence, liberalism needs Christianity in order to ground its most elemental moral claims.
But the bulk of Kraynak’s book—well over four-fifths of it—is devoted to making a different, more controversial argument. Although liberalism requires a religious foundation, Christians, in Kraynak’s view, should resist the temptation to synthesize liberal democratic and Christian principles. Such a synthesis must be rejected because Christianity cannot be “connected in principle to any form of government and may even be incompatible in crucial respects with liberal democracy.”
The inevitable tension between the requirements of politics and faith is, of course, a very old theme in Christian thinking, going back at least as far as St. Augustine’s doctrine of the “Two Cities,” if not to Jesus Christ himself, who spoke of distinct duties to God and to Caesar. Unlike Judaism and Islam, which view the divine law in political terms as a civil or legal code, Christian divine law cannot, in Kraynak’s words, “be codified directly into civil law or translated into a specific political order.” The City of Man must inevitably fall short of the City of God. Christians should thus remain somewhat detached from the form of government that prevails at any given period of history. In the Middle Ages, when the dominant political arrangements were aristocracy and monarchy, the temptation was to overemphasize hierarchy and downplay the innate dignity of all human beings. Today, when our political assumptions are in many ways the reverse, Kraynak believes we need to be reminded that there is “something inherently hierarchical in the Christian religion.”
He finds evidence for such a hierarchy in the notion of the Apostolic Succession, which directly links contemporary church leaders to Jesus’ chosen disciples, as well as in the Platonic-Aristotelian and Scholastic conception of a hierarchy of being and substance. To be sure, Luther and Calvin raised fundamental questions about the legitimacy of these notions of rank. Each, however, left the authority of other temporal hierarchies intact. Kraynak points out that Luther, for example, advised Christians to “obey established powers as authorities ordained by God.” Even Calvin, whose political views have at times been interpreted democratically, defended a “limited theocracy governed by a moral elite who are not identical to the predestined elect but who may cooperate with them in governing.”
To those who find such historical arguments unpersuasive and appeal instead to the gospel’s message of universal dignity and brotherhood as a foundation for democratic politics, Kraynak points out that Scripture contains its own antidemocratic tendencies. Whereas modern democratic activists treat dignity as something “absolute,” human dignity in the Bible is “selective.” That is, while all human beings do partake in the spiritual dignity that persists from our creation in the image of God prior to the Fall, the Bible also “permits and even requires different degrees of dignity in the created and fallen world based on God’s election of special people and the institution of human authorities.” Dignity is at once “given and therefore ‘inalienable’ (as we would say today)” as well as being “something to be won or lost, merited or forfeited, augmented or diminished.” According to Kraynak, it is this fundamental and ineradicable tension within the City of Man—between what might be called democratic and aristocratic principles of distinction—that explains Christianity’s historic refusal to grant automatic legitimacy to any one form of government, including democracy.
Until, that is, the last few decades of the twentieth century. As Kraynak writes, “from both a historical and a theological perspective,” it is quite extraordinary that within the past generation “almost all Christian churches and theologians (Protestant, Catholic, and, most recently, Eastern Orthodox) have embraced democracy and human rights as the core of their political teachings.” To explain this remarkable development, Kraynak analyzes six movements that are commonly cited as causes of change in Christian politics. They range from medieval Conciliarism and the Protestant Reformation (with its emphasis on individual conscience) to the struggles of Christian churches against colonialism, slavery, industrial exploitation of workers, and, above all, totalitarianism. While he admits that all of these factors played a role in the Church’s gradual acceptance of democracy, Kraynak chooses to focus on one (somewhat surprising) cause in particular: the influence of Immanuel Kant’s theological and political ideas.
Kraynak claims that Kant’s influence can be detected throughout contemporary religious and political culture. “On a superficial level, one can see the impact of . . . Kantian ideas on the ethical discourse of modern Christians who now speak as much or more about ‘persons,’ ‘dignity,’ ‘rights,’ and ‘respect’ than about sin, redemption, compassion, heaven, and hell.” But Kant’s influence is, he claims, even more apparent in the conception of the Imago Dei that prevails among Christians today. It is a conception that leaves no room for hierarchical distinctions among human beings and instead emphasizes that each of us is a “human person” possessing reason and free will as well as inalienable human rights. These assumptions led Kant to conclude that “the one and only legitimate constitution is a pure republic,” just as they have led modern theologians and popes to declare that (in Kraynak’s words) “setting up a democratic political system that protects human rights” is an “unconditional political imperative that demands universal implementation.”
Liberal democracies are unquestionably preferable to the monstrous totalitarian tyrannies of the twentieth century. Likewise, there is no denying that, by adopting the rhetoric of rights and a universal democratic imperative, Christian leaders (such as John Paul II) have been able to wage an effective war of words against these forces of evil. Yet Kraynak worries that the very decency of liberal democratic principles will blind us to the “subversive power of rights.” While some (such as, once again, John Paul II) manage to keep “Kant in a box” by teaching that “the rights of the person are clearly directed to higher ends,” many modern theologians and members of the clergy are less cautious. They believe that rights can simply be “detached from their subversive premises” and made compatible with “a sense of gratitude and duty to God.”
In Kraynak’s view, such a position is naive. It fails to recognize that rights tend to put authorities of all kinds (political as well as religious and paternal) on the defensive. Although rights can be used to further justice—as when the politically oppressed assert them in order to undermine the authority of despotic governments—it is exceedingly difficult to prevent them from being directed against such nonpolitical and socially necessary hierarchies as “the family, the church, traditional educational institutions, . . . or the military chain of command.” This is because the “concept of human rights lacks an inherent principle of self-denial or self-limitation.”
In making this highly contentious claim, Kraynak draws heavily on the arguments of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, as he also does in the final chapters of the book, where he sketches a “prudential” theory of government that, given the current historical and political situation, he believes could temper the rights-based form of democracy that dominates the world today. Described alternately as “constitutionalism without liberalism” and “constitutionalism under God,” Kraynak’s ideal arrangement for the contemporary City of Man would conceive of the “goods of the temporal realm” in terms of “a hierarchy of ends rather than in terms of consent or human rights.” Which is to say that Kraynak’s state, in addition to securing “civil peace and stability,” as ours does, would go further, to foster “moral virtue and civic piety or the creation of an atmosphere that nurtures virtue and piety in a comprehensive ‘high culture’ that elevates rather than degrades the human soul.” The people would be given a say in political matters through political representation, but various corporate hierarchies (in the family, the church, and the military) would dominate their private lives, acting “as a bulwark against the leveling tendencies of democracy.”
Of course none of these proposals has even the slightest chance of coming to pass in modern-day America. Kraynak is certainly aware of this. Yet he maintains that they are worthy of our consideration because they “give us the true perspective on politics by indicating that liberal democracy is a second or third choice compared to more hierarchically arranged regimes.” That Kraynak largely succeeds at pulling off what amounts to being a purely theoretical exercise is a tribute to his command of Western political theory as well as the power of his arguments.
Not that those arguments are entirely unproblematic. On the contrary, Kraynak’s project is plagued throughout by a tendency—common to many political theorists—to simplify and exaggerate the influence of philosophical ideas in political and social life. Take, as a relatively minor illustration, Kraynak’s treatment of Kant and his role in promulgating egalitarian liberalism. The Prussian philosopher has certainly exercised an extraordinary influence on the development of modern religious ideas, especially on the German tradition of liberal theology. But that influence has by no means been universal within Christianity, where (to cite but one example) Karl Barth’s antiliberal neo-orthodoxy has left a powerful mark on twentieth-century thinking.
Similarly, Catholicism’s conditional endorsement of liberal modernity since Vatican II is far less a sign that the Church has been taken over by Kantians than it is a result of its recognition, in the wake of two world wars and the Holocaust, that liberal democracy is, on the whole, more compatible with Christian teaching than any political alternative currently available. While Kraynak may well be right to be concerned that this measured acceptance of democracy has become for some an enthusiastic embrace, the proximate cause of this development cannot be found in the ideas of an eighteenth-century philosopher few contemporary Christians have read.
More troubling is the effect of Kraynak’s preoccupation with theory on his understanding of America. Liberal political philosophy has indeed exercised a significant and substantial influence on American life, but it has hardly been the only such influence. The United States has developed in the way it has through a complex combination of philosophic intentions with religious, political, social, economic, and scientific ideas and events beyond the control of any one man or group of philosophers. Kraynak’s analysis would have been strengthened—and his radical proposals for reform somewhat moderated—by a bit of Tocquevillean circumspection about the limited influence of political theory and the continued vitality of religious and political practice in America.
Still, these are relatively minor reservations. Kraynak has performed a valuable service by teaching us that, although democratic America is a decidedly decent country and thus worthy of our devotion, we ought to be cautious about loving it—or, for that matter, any earthly city—too much. Only when we remain somewhat detached from our country do we attain the distance needed to evaluate it wisely. In the words of Pierre Manent, “To love democracy well, it is necessary to love it moderately.”
But a measure of detachment is also liable to be a good thing for the faithful themselves. Aristotle points out that only in the best city is it possible for the good citizen to be a good man. And the Church tells us that no City of Man can attain the perfection of the Kingdom of God. Kraynak rightly reminds us that the fate of Christianity—let alone that of individual Christians—cannot be the same as that of democracy in America.
Damon Linker is Associate Editor of First Things.